The government will dole out nearly 2 million work permits this year to immigrants who for the most part came to the country illegally or have some other tentative status, but who have been granted a foothold in the U.S. thanks to a loose immigration policy, according to statistics released last week.
Almost all of those permits are discretionary, meaning the government could deny them if officials choose.
Meanwhile, the country’s main technology guest-worker program has essentially become a pipeline for Indians to gain a foothold in the U.S. job market, according to the statistics, which show that people from India filed nearly 75 percent of all applications this year for H-1B worker petitions, the main high-skilled guest-worker program.
The statistics were released as part of President Trump’s commitment to more transparency in the immigration system, under the terms of his April “Buy American and Hire American” executive order, and are giving researchers new insights into how the legal immigration system affects the job market.
The most striking data set involves employment authorization documents, or EADs, which are the work permits the Homeland Security Department gives to asylum seekers, refugees, certain foreign students and others — including those who qualified for the Obama-era DACA deportation amnesty for so-called Dreamers — who are in the country under something other than the traditional employment-based visa system.
According to the new data, the government doled out EADs at a rate of more than 160,000 a month in the first 10 months of fiscal year 2017, which works out to a rate of nearly 2 million for the whole year. The numbers run through June and span the Obama and Trump administrations, so it’s impossible to say whether the new administration has changed the trajectory.
Nearly 90 percent of the permits are discretionary, meaning that in 2017 alone, some 1.7 million workers are likely to be added to the job market — equivalent to a full 25 percent of the unemployment rate in September.
“The fact that more than a million and a half work permits were issued to people outside of the regular legal immigration and guest-worker programs is alarming, and cannot help but have an impact on U.S. workers,” said Jessica Vaughan, policy studies director at the Center for Immigration Studies, who has studied EAD numbers.
About 17 percent of the EADs issued this year are asylum seekers inside the U.S. Their numbers have more than tripled in the past few years as illegal immigrants figure out how to game the system, analysts said.
The biggest chunk of EADs — nearly a quarter — were granted to illegal immigrant Dreamers who have been approved for the DACA program.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has argued that Dreamers are hurting American workers by competing for jobs.
Immigrant rights advocates, meanwhile, argue that the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program is a boon to the economy. They point to high rates of education, workforce engagement, homeownership and other yardsticks of economic progress. Business groups also say they have come to rely on the Dreamers’ impact on the workforce, which they said will be worth $460 billion to the U.S. economy over the next decade.
Mr. Trump last month announced he was phasing out the legally questionable DACA program rather than have a court impose an abrupt halt to it. Now Congress is debating whether and how to go about granting the 700,000 people currently protected by DACA, and perhaps 1.5 million other self-described Dreamers, full legal protections.
Ms. Vaughan said the total number of EADs issued in 2017 is about equal to the level of legal immigration and guest workers in any one year, signaling just how much of the foreign work system is done on an ad hoc basis.
By contrast, the H-1B program and L1 visa programs, whose new numbers also were released, were established by Congress to bring in workers with specialized skills.
Tech companies in particular have made use of the visas. Cognizant Technology Solutions, Infosys Ltd., Tata Consultancy Services and Wipro Ltd. are the top users of both programs, helping siphon hundreds of thousands of workers from India.
Matthew J. O’Brien, research director at the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said tech companies have figured out how to harness the H-1B program to undercut American workers, tapping a pipeline of people from overseas who are willing to work in the U.S. in order to gain a legal foothold.
“This creates an incentive for people to accept lower wages in exchange for being in the United States and having a shot at an employment-based green card,” he said.
A final set of data released last week exposed how employers used new seasonal worker permits that the Trump administration approved, under intense pressure from Congress and summer resort and landscaping industries.
The H-2B visa program sparked a major fight in Washington this year, with some members of Congress pushing to more than double of the number of permits that could be issued in 2017, from 66,000 to more than 135,000. In the end, Congress left the final decision to the Homeland Security Department, which allowed just 15,000 additional permits.
The new data detail 12,384 of those permits, which are supposed to be used for seasonal nonagricultural work. Businesses in Texas and Virginia were the biggest users of the program, accounting for more than a quarter of the special permits.
North Carolina was surprisingly only a middle-of-the-pack user of the program. One of the state’s members of Congress, Republican Sen. Thom Tillis, had blocked action on Mr. Trump’s pick to head the legal immigration agency over the summer to try to force Homeland Security to approve more permits, and to do it faster.
Jobs can be taken by H-2B workers only if a company has first tried to hire an American at the local prevailing wage.
While most of the visas were scooped up by groundskeepers, hunters, laborers and food service workers — all traditional occupations for the H-2B program — 29 visas were issued for people in “marketing and sales,” 12 were issued to foreign workers classified as “private household servant,” and 23 were mechanics.
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